One hundred years ago this fall, as the First World War raged in Europe, the deadliest infectious disease in recorded history, the Spanish flu – killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. Between 1918 and 1920, at least 50,000 Canadians died from the disease, more than all the battlefield deaths combined. The flu epidemic reached Saskatchewan on October 1, 1918 when infected soldiers disembarked from troop trains in Regina. From there, the flu spread rapidly throughout the province. On October 17, the first influenza case was reported in Prince Albert. Five days later, there were 58 new cases.
The Spanish flu, named after the country where it was first detected, struck with amazing speed. Victims often died within 24 hours. The greatest number of deaths from the epidemic occurred in young adults between the ages of 20 and 40. Because influenza was more likely to kill parents than children, there was a sharp rise in the number of orphans in the province.
Like other Saskatchewan cities and towns, Prince Albert responded to the crisis by closing schools and placing a ban on public gatherings to try to control the contagion. Movie theatres, dance halls, billiard rooms, the library, and other public places were closed. Restaurants, hotels and drug stores were allowed to stay open. October 20, 1918 was the first “churchless Sunday” in the history of the city; several more followed.
November was the worst month, with over 2,500 deaths province-wide. On the 6th, the Daily Herald reported that Prince Albert had 295 cases since influenza outbreak; the total number of deaths was 26. Some deplorable cases were reported, including the members of a family living in a shack in the east end of the city. “Both parents were in bed suffering from influenza and there were three children under three years of age which were in such a condition of neglect and filth that they became a menace to the health of themselves and others,” the Herald stated. “There was no one to help this family and it was impossible to get them into any institution.” The hospitals were full and had to send patients away.
Stories like this revealed a critical need for improved health care. An Emergency hospital was set up at the collegiate (later PACI). By November 5, there were 25 flu patients being cared for in the makeshift hospital by volunteers, including members of the school’s staff. A public health bureau, headed by Dr. P. D. Tyerman, was set up at city hall on November 5th to deal with the epidemic. The bureau made constant calls for volunteers. Women were asked to help as caregivers and nurses. Men who owned cars were asked to volunteer as chauffeurs to homes where help was needed. Car owners were also asked to take hospital nurses out for half-hour drives “so that they may get the benefit of fresh air.”
“It seems to be breaking out in the most unexpected places,” the Herald observed. Influenza did not discriminate – it attacked rich and poor, rural and urban, alike. Even Prince Albert’s medical health officer, Dr. McMillan, was not immune. His wife and small daughter both caught the flu, and the family’s maid, Miss S. Senum, was taken ill with a serious attack. On November 4, she was taken to the Emergency hospital at the collegiate where she died the next day.
Rural Saskatchewan was hit particularly hard by the flu epidemic. Eva Hanson remembers caring for sick neighbours on their farm near Domremy. Each day, she travelled a mile and a half on a pair of home-made skis, carrying chicken or beef broth to feed the family with eight children. She brought home the family’s soiled clothing and diapers and hand-washed them every day. Eva recalls that her husband was angry with her for helping this family, because he was afraid she would bring home germs that would infect their 8-month-old son.
In vain attempts to keep the epidemic at bay, many small towns and villages in Saskatchewan imposed quarantines against outsiders. For example, on November 5, the village of Shellbrook announced that it was under quarantine. “The railroad authorities have been advised not to sell any tickets for Shellbrook,” the Herald reported. “Any person from an infected area entering the town will not only be prosecuted but quarantined for three days.” Citizen patrols monitored the train stations and patrolled the roads to prevent travel. Dr. M. M. Seymour, provincial medical health officer, soon declared this practice illegal. But, as both the railways and the police were understaffed due to outbreaks of influenza, local quarantines continued.
During the first three months of the epidemic, 3,906 Saskatchewan people died, with the number of deaths peaking in mid-November 1918 – a result of people coming together for victory celebrations on Armistice Day. By the end of 1918, 50 citizens of Prince Albert had died from the disease. The epidemic continued to May 1919 and then gradually subsided. By 1920, it was calculated that a total of 5,018 people had died in the province because the terrible Spanish Flu.
Scientists still don’t know why the flu epidemic of 1918 was so deadly. Milder strains of the bug, an H1N1 virus, are still around today. Get your flu shot.